Questions about the meaning and purpose of life used to belong in the realms of philosophy and theology. Philosophy speculates about who we are, why we are here and what our ultimate meaning is. If there is none, how do we create our own meaning? Theology is based on revelation, given in the Scriptures, of a particular religion and deemed authoritative, needing no secondary evidence. Now, science is entering this territory. In fact, Stephen Hawking wrote that, “traditionally, (the big questions about where we fit) are for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. It has not kept up with modern development in science, particularly physics”. He says science is the best bet for finding answers to the meaning of our existence.
This movement probably began in the popular sphere with Hawking’s own book, A Brief History of Time, which has sold over 25 million copies and counting. He raises fundamental questions about the beginning and what may have been happening before the beginning. What is the nature of time? Is it unending or closed? How vast is space? Is there an end to it, and if so, what lies beyond? Into the mix comes the recurring ultimate question: What is the meaning and value of human existence?
Another of Hawking’s best-selling books, The Grand Design, claims to offer, “… new answers to the ultimate questions of life”. But, having gone through the book, I have difficulty finding the promised answers, other than the prospect of a Unified Field Theory, which has been looked for from Einstein onwards to help us understand everything in one grand theoretical framework. A bit like Einstein’s ‘e=mc 2’, though on a much grander all-encompassing scale.
Brian Greene’s Until the End of Time, subtitled, Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe is on the New York Times best-selling list. His bleak first line is, “In the fullness of time all that lives will die.” He says “…every religion, every scientific investigation, every philosophy proceeds from the inevitability of death”. This is, he says, “…a uniquely human problem – for no other creature knows death. They become old with a consciousness wholly limited to the present moment, which must seem to them eternal.”
Another popular book is The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) by Katie Mack. It takes us through five universe-ending possibilities, all leading to the ultimate extinction of everything we know. This doesn’t satisfy the writer, despite her putting on a brave face, for one of her last chapters is about, ‘The Future of the Future’. The speculation is gloomy, but the writer is unable to escape her final question, “…as long as we are thinking creatures, we will never stop asking, …what comes next?”
What Comes Next?
It is intriguing that most of us are not satisfied with answers that tell us there is no ultimate meaning to our existence, if that is, in fact, the actual state of play. We keep re-asking the question hoping someone can one day solve this for us, or at least, give us some hope – because whereas doom and gloom scenarios may satisfy our minds as inevitable – they do not satisfy our hearts. C.S. Lewis first coined the phrase, ‘chronological snobbery’, which is the assumption that the thinking of earlier times is inherently inferior to that of the present. New discoveries are, of course, being made all the time, but perhaps we need to ditch our ‘chronological snobbery’ and instead of looking ahead to the next great idea, look back to wisdom of earlier times. After all, some people have been making sense of life all along.
Back in the Old Testament, Solomon wrote the intriguing book of Ecclesiastes. In it, he looks at life from a purely human perspective, “under the sun”, (a phrase he uses thirty times). It is about life as we see, feel, taste, touch, smell and think it – purely by what our senses tell us in the limited scope of our personal experience. As such, it is a handbook on humanism. He states his very gloomy conclusion early on when he writes: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the teacher. “Utterly meaningless. Everything is meaningless,” (Ecclesiastes 1.2). The word ‘meaningless’ reoccurs thirty-five times. Not satisfied with that, he tells us he tried to find meaning to this life ‘under the sun’ through such things as pleasure, wine, building projects, possessions, wealth, music, women (“I acquired a harem”), work, knowledge and skill, (and that is only a partial list).
He claims, “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure”. He was living the ultimate dream surely, but it turned very sour. “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun,” (Ecclesiastes 2.10-11). When the excitement of his adventures and pleasures died down, he found it to be little more than, “…a chasing after the wind”. So, he says, “I hated life… I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun… they were meaningless, a chasing after wind”. He questions whether a human has any advantage over an animal, for they come from the same dust, breathe the same breath, then return to the same dust. So, “…who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth”. The option of settling down to, “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die”, is a strong temptation, but that doesn’t satisfy him either.
Eternity in Our Hearts
And here is his reason why: The Creator, he says, “… has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end,” (Ecclesiastes 3.10-11). Something in the human constitution cannot be satisfied with only material explanations, material pleasures or material prosperity, for there is a dimension to human make-up he describes as “eternity in their hearts”. C.S. Lewis said, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” He is agreeing with Solomon. We cannot satisfy eternal appetites by material resources, for they are different things. The statement in the Bible, “Man cannot live by bread alone” is telling us that all the material resources available to us are not enough to satisfy the appetite of the human heart that we share with the rest of mankind. We are more defined by our heart than by our head. The appetites of the heart are the search engine of the soul. They drive our explorations, but do not satisfy our needs when their horizon is limited to the material and physical. But the ‘eternity’ he speaks of is not a dimension ‘out there’, detached and far off, but ‘in here’ – an eternity in our hearts. This is an appetite expressed in the desire to connect with something that lasts forever.
Communion with God
Here Christianity finds its deepest significance. The central thrust of Christianity is communion with God. Miss that and we miss its entire message. The ‘mechanics’ surrounding the Gospel (for example, the need for forgiveness, its ethics, the Church community, its global mission etc.) are not its substance. The substance of the Gospel is reconciliation with God for the purpose of communion, relationship, even intimacy with Him at the deepest level of the human soul. As we contemplate the vastness of time and space on the one hand, and the brevity of our own earthly lives on the other, we are invited to find security in being known by God, loved by Him, indwelt by Him and reconciled to Him who has always been, is now, and will always be. An appetite for the eternal can only be met by the Eternal One! The human experiences of love, intimacy and trust are wonderful pointers to a deeper and more permanent love, intimacy and trust with God.
Most people are overwhelmed by the wonders we observe, from the vastness of space, to the miniscule nature of the atom (my body has about 8 octillion atoms – an 8 followed by 27 zeros). But this needs to lead us somewhere to be satisfying. In the words of GK Chesterton when he became a Christian, “I had always believed that the world involved magic: now I thought it perhaps involved a magician”. We look at the ‘magic’ with amazement, but it is the “magician” our hearts yearn to know.
Throughout history, since time immemorial in the most primitive cultures and the most sophisticated cultures, countless people have found true meaning and significance in a relationship with God. The natural world expresses His creative power, but wonder needs to become worship and worship relationship, and relationship experience. Whether Solomon is being hypothetical in his construction of a “meaningless” life, lived “under the sun”, a “chasing after the wind”, or whether he slipped into a dark period of living independently of God, I am not sure. Whatever is true about that, he woke up towards the end of his book with his exclamation, “…remember your Creator in the days of your youth,” before, he says, the days of trouble come, before you lose all pleasure, before you get old and nervous and afraid of heights, and before “the silver cord is severed … and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it”.
By then you will have wasted the years you were given, he tells us, and find yourself empty-handed. He finishes his exploration of a meaningless life lived only under the sun with the wisdom for which he is famous.
Now all has been heard, here is the conclusion of the matter:
“Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man,” (Ecclesiastes 12:13)
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By Charles Price
About the author
Charles Price serves as the ‘Minister at large’ at the People’s Church I Toronto, Canada.
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